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Known as "America's Oldest Teenager" for his unflagging support of pop music and adolescent culture for over 40 years, Dick Clark was a prolific television host and producer whose signature program, "American Bandstand" (WFIL-TV/ABC/syndicated/USA Network, 1952-1989), helped to pave the way for rock-n-roll music to enter the homes of young viewers across America, and in turn, assist in its cultural dominance. Clark moved swiftly up the radio ladder at various East Coast stations before assuming the mantle of "Bandstand" host during its infancy in Philadelphia. His compassion for his young viewers, combined with his determination to spread the show's message of music and fun for all viewers, no matter their background or race, made him a trendsetter for the younger set while he, himself, was in his thirties. Ever-youthful in appearance even well into his forties and fifties, Clark would soon become a go-to host for a vast variety of television programs while establishing himself as a producer on countless others, including the American Music Awards and "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve." After decades in the business, a stroke seemed to slow him only briefly in 2004, but his legacy as a pioneer of...
Known as "America's Oldest Teenager" for his unflagging support of pop music and adolescent culture for over 40 years, Dick Clark was a prolific television host and producer whose signature program, "American Bandstand" (WFIL-TV/ABC/syndicated/USA Network, 1952-1989), helped to pave the way for rock-n-roll music to enter the homes of young viewers across America, and in turn, assist in its cultural dominance. Clark moved swiftly up the radio ladder at various East Coast stations before assuming the mantle of "Bandstand" host during its infancy in Philadelphia. His compassion for his young viewers, combined with his determination to spread the show's message of music and fun for all viewers, no matter their background or race, made him a trendsetter for the younger set while he, himself, was in his thirties. Ever-youthful in appearance even well into his forties and fifties, Clark would soon become a go-to host for a vast variety of television programs while establishing himself as a producer on countless others, including the American Music Awards and "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve." After decades in the business, a stroke seemed to slow him only briefly in 2004, but his legacy as a pioneer of rock music on television assured him a unique and enduring fame.
Born Richard Wagstaff Clark on Nov. 30, 1929 in Mount Vernon, NY, he was the son of Richard Augustus Clark and his wife, Julia Fuller. Clark's only sibling, brother Bradley, was killed in World War II. Radio became his primary passion while in high school, and he began his career in the medium in 1945 with a mail room job at WRUN-AM, a station owned by his uncle and managed by his father in Utica. His first break came during the summer after he graduated from high school, when the station manager asked him to fill in for the weatherman on RUN's new FM station. Within a few months, he was handling station breaks and other on-air tasks. Clark attended Syracuse University in the fall, where he majored in advertising with a minor in radio, and maintained his hand in the business with a job at a country and western music station in Syracuse. After graduation in 1951, he returned to WRUN, where he began broadcasting under the name Richard Clay. His first stint on television, as a newscaster at WKTV in Utica, soon followed.
In 1952, he relocated to Philadelphia, and there, now billed as Dick Clark, took a job as a DJ on WFIL radio and television. WFIL TV had a program called "Bandstand," hosted by WFIL DJ Bob Horn, which featured records played live on the air and later local teenagers dancing along with the music. Clark, whose own WFIL radio show was also formatted around pop records, began filling in as host of "Bandstand" when Horn was on vacation; eventually taking over the show in July of 1956. Though Clark was not particularly savvy about the current pop trends at the time, he found his audience through his enormous empathy with and interest in his teen guests. At 26, he was not much older than they were, and his famously boyish looks helped to sell the idea that he was "one of them." He was also a keen observer of trends - what teens were buying, listening to, wearing and talking about, and incorporated them into the show's playlist and his conversations with them. Clark also made one hugely significant move from a historical standpoint - he integrated the audience to include black students. All of his efforts paid off handsomely in the Philadelphia ratings market.
In 1957, ABC began asking its affiliates for programming to fill the 3:30 p.m. Eastern time slot, and Clark launched a campaign to put "Bandstand" in a national spot. After much debate, the newly renamed "American Bandstand" entered the history books on Aug. 5, 1957. The format remained largely the same; Clark would introduce songs for his impeccably groomed crowd of Philadelphia schoolkids, then join them on the bleachers for casual conversation and their views on the latest pop hits, which later gave way to the popular segment "Rate A Record" and the undying tag line, "It's got a good beat and I can dance to it." Clark also made sure that his teen audience remained racially integrated, which provided a national audience with the most prominent example of racial diversity on television for the next few decades.
ABC, which had been struggling for some time, found itself with a sizable hit on its hands with "Bandstand." The show's broadcast time was perfectly timed to coincide with kids coming home from school, and its roster of guests, culled from the burgeoning rock-n-roll scene, kept them glued to the screen five days a week. The show's 20 million viewers on 64 channels virtually guaranteed that a song played on the show would become a national hit, so not surprisingly, labels and agents battled to get their act onto Clark's radar. Even the show's teen dancers garnered their own fan clubs. By 1958, "Bandstand" was an unqualified, runaway success. Detractors lambasted the show for pandering to the base rhythms of rock-n-roll, and wondered aloud about its morally corruptive influence. Their prayers for its swift demise nearly came to pass in 1959 with the U.S. Senate's investigation into the payola scandal in radio.
The Senate's inquiries had already brought down one of rock's pioneering figures, DJ Alan Freed, when it was determined that he had accepted payments for playing records and for drawing income from songwriting royalties. Clark soon found himself in the Senate's crosshairs when it was discovered that he was a shareholder in the Jamie-Guyden Distribution Company, whose songs were receiving regular airplay on "Bandstand." Clark also had ties to over 30 music-related businesses, including recording companies and pressing plants in the Philadelphia area. When ABC got wind of the case that was building against Clark, they advised him to sever ties with any of these investments, which he quickly and quietly did by late 1959. When charges were eventually brought against Clark, he simply produced an affidavit that denied his involvement with those companies, which spared him from further investigation.
The success of "Bandstand" naturally led to more hosting opportunities for Clark, and he was soon tripling his on-camera time with two additional shows. "The Dick Clark Show" (ABC, 1958-1960) was a concert-style cavalcade of pop acts lip-synching to their latest hits, while "Dick Clark's World of Talent" (ABC, 1959) was a short-lived variety/talent show with celebrity guests offering advice to amateur performers. While neither of these programs achieved the lasting popularity of "Bandstand," they did, for a time, make Clark one of the few figures in TV history to appear in programming seven days a week. Through the decades, Clark would do his part to familiarize the world with such new acts as Jerry Lee Lewis, The Jackson 5, Madonna and everyone else in between - all of whom would lip synch their latest hit while teenagers danced around them.
The 1960s saw "Bandstand" undergo several changes. First was the shift from a 90-minute program to 60 minutes in 1961, following by a further reduction to 30 minutes in 1962. By 1963, the weekly episodes were videotaped on weekends for the weekly broadcast before moving permanently to a Saturday airtime that same year. In 1964, Clark moved the production to Los Angeles; three years later, the show was finally broadcasting all episodes in color. After the move to Los Angeles, Clark began to remold his own image into that of a multimedia mogul. He launched his own production company, dick clark productions, which oversaw a wide variety of youth-oriented film and television projects. "Bandstand" was, of course, at the top of the company food chain, but there was also "Where the Action Is" (ABC, 1965-67), a weekly variety show based around Southern California pop and rock acts like its house band, Paul Revere and the Raiders. Less wholesome was his involvement with several counterculture action-exploitation films produced by American International Pictures, including the LSD drama "Psych-Out" (1968) with Jack Nicholson, and "Killers Three" (1968), in which he co-starred as a Depression era bank robber. Clark had made several appearances in features and television, all hinged on his connection to teens, most notably as a sympathetic high school teacher in "Because They're Young" (1960) and as an impressionable doctor in training in "The Young Interns" (1961). His acting career would peter out in the early 1970s, after which he concentrated largely on his growing empire.
By the 1970s, Clark's presence in television was ubiquitous. In addition to "Bandstand," Clark's name and face was associated with a host of entertainment programs. Chief among these was "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve," (ABC, 1972- ), a variety show featuring live music acts and remote broadcasts from Times Square in New York City which counted down the hours and minutes until the New Year ball dropped to signal the end of the year. The show was soon an integral part of most viewers' celebration of the holiday, and Clark hosted every edition from 1972 through 1999, when it was usurped by "ABC 2000 Today" (ABC, 1999), the network's coverage of the millennial change. He would return to regular New Year's Eve duty the following year and remain at the show's helm until his illness in 2004 forced him to abdicate to Regis Philbin and later, Ryan Seacrest.
In 1973, Clark launched an assault on the Grammy's stranglehold on the pop music award market with "The American Music Awards" for ABC. The show's voting process, which was based on polls taken among music buyers rather than from industry professionals, helped to keep the show more in tune with the charts than the Grammys, and the show bested its established predecessor in the ratings on numerous occasions. Clark also doubled his television exposure by hosting "The $10,000 Pyramid" (CBS/ABC/syndicated, 1973-1988, 1991, 2002-04), a wildly popular game show produced by "Price is Right" creator Bob Stewart. Clark hosted both the "$10,000" edition and subsequent "$25,000" and "$100,000" versions from 1973 until 1988, and earned three Emmy Awards as Best Game Show Host. Despite this punishing schedule, Clark also found time to pen his autobiography, Rock, Roll and Remember, in 1976.
Clark showed no signs of slowing down as he entered his fifth decade in the 1980s, though his flagship program, "American Bandstand," was beginning to wind down. ABC's decision to cut the show to 30 minutes prompted Clark to move it to syndication in 1987 before settling into a new home on the USA Network in 1989. Clark remained at its helm as both host and producer, but the venerable series had clearly run its course. Clark himself stepped down as its most recognizable face shortly after the move to USA, but "Bandstand" faltered without him. By October of that year, it was gone from USA's roster, though it remained on local airwaves in Reno, NV, where it had moved its production, through the mid-1990s. Clark attempted to revive the program in 2004, but said plans never entirely came to pass; one aspect of the proposed new show, a national dance contest, took on a life of its own as the wildly popular "So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, 2005- ).
Clark focused his energies elsewhere during this period; he remained the host of both "The $25,000 Pyramid" on CBS and a daily, syndicated "$100,000 Pyramid" for most of the decade, as well as teamed with Ed McMahon for "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" (NBC, 1984-86), which compiled vintage and recent flubs on television shows and feature films with newer gags pulled on minor celebrities by the show's production team. He would remain affiliated with the show throughout its various permutations, including a shift from weekly series to recurring specials and a move to ABC, until 2004. And he returned to the radio airwaves with "The Dick Clark National Music Survey" for the Mutual Broadcasting System, which offered a direct challenge to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40," from 1981 through 1986. For a brief period of time, Clark was again in the broadcasting history books by hosting programs on all three networks: "Bandstand" on ABC, "Pyramid" on CBS and "Bloopers" on NBC.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Clark served as host or producer on a variety of television programs, but most lacked the longevity of his best-known projects; there were game shows like "Scattegories" (NBC, 1993) and the amusingly self-aware "Greed" (Fox, 1999-2000), and Clark was the de factor Barbara Walters on "The Other Half" (syndicated, 2001-03), a syndicated talk show intended to be the male version of "The View" (ABC, 1997- ). Clark yielded stronger returns with a series of nostalgia-themed entertainment ventures, including restaurants and theaters that capitalized on his association with "Bandstand." Most were successful, though he garnered some negative publicity from the documentary "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), which alleged that his restaurants required their low-income employees to work long hours for substandard wages. In the film, director Michael Moore attempted to question Clark about the situation, but the perennially congenial media figure literally shut Moore out by making a hasty exit in a car without a response to the inquiry all caught on film. In 2002, Clark was an executive producer and inspiration for the drama "American Dreams" (NBC, 2002-05), a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of "Bandstand's" tenure in 1960s Philadelphia. The series made considerable use of vintage footage from "Bandstand," as well as recreations of musical acts that performed on the show. But its modest success was soon overshadowed by a major health crisis that left many in the industry unsure about Clark's future.
In 2004, the man who never seemed to age was hospitalized for what was described as a minor stroke. He had already been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes the previous year, but because the stroke was announced as minor in nature, most thought he would continue hosting big moments in the public's collective life. However, by year's end, Clark issued a statement that he would not be able to host his annual New Year's special - the first time he would not be on camera for the ball drop since the network's coverage of the millennial change trumped the usual festivities. He returned to the program in 2005, but in a reduced position; his speech audibly slurred, he appeared in only limited segments. It was disconcerting to his many fans who had grown up with the man; never knowing a time when he was not in their homes on television. However, in typical fashion, Clark's on-air appearances would multiply in subsequent years as his will to fight through the debilitation strengthened. Though his voice remained somewhat affected by the stroke, he was well enough to split his hosting duties with Ryan Seacrest for a significant portion of the 2008-09 broadcast, and go on to do this for the next few years. On April 18, 2012, the 82-year-old icon had a massive heart attack and passed away at his home, bringing the curtain down on one of the most prolific and influential careers in entertainment history.
By Paul Gaita
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